Pianist Randy Weston is almost always noted for his exceptional physical height, but he also stands tall as the author of jazz standards such as “Little Niles, “Hi-Fly,” and numerous other pieces of note. His compositional legacy has been built on blues, appealing and percussive melodic figures, waltz times and African rhythms. “The Randy Weston Songbook” features Weston’s music performed by Booker Ervin, Gigi Gryce and Donald Byrd, Betty Carter, Jon Hendricks, and Weston himself.
A Diverse Set Of Influences
Weston came out of the Brooklyn jazz scene of the late 1940s and 50s, influenced by friends and figures such as Max Roach, Coleman Hawkins, and Thelonious Monk. His father was from Panama and his mother from Virginia, and they respectively exposed him to West Indian calypso and African-American church music. His early musical experiences included playing with Bullmoose Jackson’s R and B band, and he also spent a lot of time taking in the arts culture of the Berkshire Mountains in the 1950s, striking up an influential friendship with jazz critic Marshall Stearns in the process.
In the mid-1950s Weston began to record for Riverside and won the Down Beat critics’ poll as New Star of the Year, launching his long career as a committed, searching, and creatively compelling jazz artist. One of the most significant ways in which Weston has built his legacy is as a composer—he told Ira Gitler in 1964 that he thought that’s what his true musical gift was. Weston’s compositions pull together a wide range of influences, from Monk and bebop to African and Caribbean music; if you want to talk multicultural jazz, he’s definitely somebody to include in the conversation.
The Weston-Liston Partnership
One of Weston’s most important writing collaborators was trombonist and arranger Melba Liston, who worked with him throughout his career on many of his most important projects, and whom Weston was always insistent about giving credit to, even writing a scolding letter to Downbeat in 1964 for not mentioning her contributions to his music in an article about him. “Melba is incredible; she hears what I do and then expands it,” Weston once said. “She will create a melody that sounds like I created it. She’s just a great, great arranger.”
The Rhythms Of Home
In 1961 Weston visited Africa with an American delegation that included poet Langston Hughes, singer Nina Simone, and bandleader Lionel Hampton. The emerging African nation independence movements were a source of inspiration to many black artists at the time, and Weston had just recorded a four-part suite, Uhuru Afrika, as a salute to such movements, with arrangements by Liston and lyrics contributed by Hughes. (You can hear more of the suite on the Night Lights show The Langston Hughes Songbook.)
Uhuru Afrika also brought Weston’s interest in African rhythms to the forefront in his work–he would later tell journalist Valerie Wilmer that hearing African music had intensified the part that rhythm played in his composing process. Recalling his first visit to Africa, he said
We got off the plane and all of a sudden we heard the sound of drums. I knew then that this was my homeland.
Africa By Way Of Brooklyn
Randy Weston moved to Morocco for several years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, returned to the States and recorded sporadically, then began a vigorous run of new recordings at the end of the 1980s , one of which, the double-disc The Spirits Of Our Ancestors, celebrated African musical heritage and revisited a number of his earlier compositions.
Melba Liston, who had suffered a stroke, learned to use a computer and write with her left hand in order to do the arrangements for the album, which serves as one of the best testaments to Weston’s creed of music as a unifying, ancient force and global culture’s musical roots in Africa. The program closes with a tune that Weston wrote to celebrate the black communal culture of the Brooklyn area in which he grew up—“African Village Bedford Stuyvesant.”
Watch Randy Weston perform his composition “Blue Moses”: